The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Chukat: A Serpent Of Brass

I have commented previously on the difference between chukim, mishpatim, and zachorim. This Torah portion is named after the Commandment of the Red Heifer, the strangest mitzvah in the Torah. There is a midrash that after Solomon was given the gift of wisdom by the Lord, he was asked if he now understood all the mitzvot in the Torah. He replied that he understood them all, with the exception of the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.

This is what to do to purify someone who has been exposed to a human corpse. Find a maiden cow under two years of age that is covered in red hairs. If as many as two hairs are not red, the cow is invalid. The cow must never have been yoked, and must be free of blemishes. The cow is to be ritually slaughtered, and its carcass burned with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson yarn (from a certain rare worm). The ashes are to be collected and used for a special preparation. The priest who slaughtered the cow, and the priest who burned the cow would be required to wash their garments, bathe in a mikveh, and be ritually unclean until that evening.. A different, ritually pure priest would collect the ashes.

If someone were exposed to a human corpse, they would become ritually unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh day, they would be sprinkled with water with these ashes mixed in, and the priest who sprinkled them would have to wash his garments, bathe in a mikveh and be ritually unclean until that evening. After the second treatment on the seventh day, the person would be ritually clean again. Anyone exposed to a corpse who did not undergo this treatment was to be excommunicated.

In the time of the Tabernacle, ritual slaughter could only take place in the courtyard of the Tabernacle. After the erection of the Temple, ritual slaughter could only take place in the courtyard of the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, no more ritual slaughter could ever take place. The Talmud tells us that when Moses and Aaron heard this commandment, a red heifer appeared ready for them to use for this ritual. The rabbis of the Talmud are divided on how many red heifers there have been, but mostly likely, the number is in the single digits. A vial of the red heifer's ashes survived the destruction of the Temple, but ran out during Talmudic times. There are lots of legends about the various red heifers. There is a legend that when Solomon was ready to consecrate the Temple, a new red heifer appeared. Similarly, the scribe Ezra found a red heifer just before Zerubbabel was ready to consecrate the Second Temple.

Today, there are Christian Fundamentalists who are trying to grow a perfect red heifer to give to the Jews in Israel so that they can consecrate the not-yet-built Third Temple. As this would involve dislodging the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, this might be met with some resistance.

It goes without saying that all Jews who have ever seen a dead body, or have ever been in a room that has ever previously contained a dead body, are ritually unclean forever and should be excommunicated seven days after such exposure. And yet they are not, since the remedy is no longer available to us. Even still, all cohens (descendents of Aaron) are advised by the Orthodoxy not to attend funerals, unless it is the funeral of an immediate relative. I have yet to hear a Biblical literalist remark upon this.

The Torah tells us how to prepare because Miriam dies right after this explanation appears, and Aaron dies later in the passage.

The Children of Israel stop in the Desert of Tzin, and Miriam dies there. The people are thirsty, and complain about having no water. God tells Moses to take haMatteh, or "the staff" (interpreted to be Aaron's Rod) and to command a certain rock (or some say, a cliff) to give forth water for the people. Instead, Moses strikes the rock, twice, and it gushes forth abundantly with water. This angers God, who tells Moses that if he had sufficient faith, he would have spoken to the rock rather than have struck it, twice. By striking the rock, he failed to sanctify God before the people, and as a punishment, Moses is now barred from entering the Promised Land, and will die on the opposite side of the Jordan river, before the Children of Israel enter the land.

Pretty much everyone who reads and thinks about Torah is uncomfortable with this judgment, if taken literally. Is the difference between talking to a rock and hitting a rock with a stick so significant that it should condemn a righteous man to a death that severs him from the fulfillment of his goals and dreams? Especially coming immediately after the death of a sister who took care of him when he was a baby? Even in the midst of an angry mob throwing off his concentration?

The interpretation I am most comfortable with is that leaders cannot stay leaders forever. They have to pass their mantles of leadership to another generation. Moses and Aaron and Miriam have clearly lost control of the mob, who seem to break out in a new rebellion and riot with every new Torah portion. It is time for Eleazar to replace Aaron (hence Eleazar is commanded to slaughter the red heifer, not Aaron), and for Joshua to replace Moses. Those condemned by God to die in the desert have given up hope, and have only bitterness, but their children have a future ahead of them in the land overflowing with milk and honey.

In this age where Masonic membership numbers are much less than they were fifty years ago, we are all aware of lodges run by men who were Past Masters decades ago, who continue to cling to power long after the zenith of their accomplishments. Some are willing to offer the Eastern Chair to a willing subordinate, as long as everyone understands where the real power is coming from. This is a perversion of what Masonry intends to teach us about leadership. The last lesson a Worshipful Master receives is how to vacate his office, content to sit on the sidelines and to let others rule after him. Some Masters never learn that lesson, and their lodges suffer. Others never get the option to learn that lesson, as their lodges remain in leadership crises before, during, and after they are in the East.

After being rebuffed by the Edomites when trying to pass through their country on their way to the Promised Land, they stop at Mt. Hor. Aaron's priestly robes are removed from his body and given to Eleazar, the new High Priest. Then Aaron dies atop the mountain. The people mourned the death of Aaron for thirty days.

Moving along the coast, alongside the nation of Edom, the people began to grumble again, and God sent venomous serpents to bite them, killing many of them. The people begged Moses to save them from the serpents, and God told Moses to fashion a serpent out of brass (or copper), and to place it on a banner. Whoever had been bitten by the serpents couldlook at the brazen serpent, and would not be killed by the venom. This motif of the brazen serpent raised on the pole appears in the Scottish Rite, in the Lodge of Perfection degrees, in the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction.

The Brazen Serpent (נחושתן, or nechustan), was part of the Temple until it was destroyed by King Hezekiah, who regarded it as idolatrous.

The Children of Israel encounter different nations in their journey, and they send emissaries to ask permission to pass through these territories, promising not to forage, scrounge, pillage or even so much as drink any water from their wells. The first time, they are met at the borders by an army, refusing them passage, and they turn away. The second time, they are met at the borders by an army, and they curse the cities of those people. The third time, at Bashan, they are attacked, and fight back, and kill everybody in Bashan, including their giant king, Og, and occupy Bashan and its cities. After this, they move on to the plains of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho, their last encampment before taking the Promised Land.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Necessity of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic

No Masonic lodge would allow an Entered Apprentice to become a Master Mason without passing to the degree of Fellowcraft first. It would be unimaginable to proceed otherwise. One of the Working Tools of an Entered Apprentice is the Common Gavel, which we use to divest our hearts and consciences of the vices and superfluities of life; thereby fitting our minds, as living stones, for that spiritual building, that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. There is a suitable proficiency in the use of this tool which is required of us before we can be passed, and our conductor vouches for us that we have that suitable proficiency.

In the Fellowcraft degree, we are taught about the seven liberal arts and sciences, that we should engage with in constant study. There is a certain peril in making the transition from Operative Masonry to Speculative Masonry. Stones can be tried objectively by the square, but men cannot always be so tried, even though the candidate lecture of the Fellowcraft invites us to do so. In making the transition from Operative to Speculative Masonry, we still try each living stone, only with the Working Tools of a Fellowcraft in their speculative usages, rather than their operative usages. No mason should be offended at being tried, as he has been ever tried, never denied, and ready to be tried again.

An Operative Freemason works in stone. A Speculative Freemason works on himself. At the Entered Apprentice level, he works on the guttural, pectoral, manual, and pedal levels. At the Fellowcraft level, he works on the verbal and intellectual levels. At the Master Mason level, he works on the spiritual level. If he fails to work on the guttural, pectoral, manual and pedal levels, he cannot be a fit subject for the lessons of the Fellowcraft. Similarly, if he fails to work on the verbal and intellectual levels, he cannot be a fit subject for the lessons of the Master Mason. This science is progressive, and indeed must be so.

The seven liberal arts and sciences are divided into the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium is a prerequisite for the Quadrivium. A man who fails to master the Trivium cannot be a Fellowcraft, let alone a Master Mason.

Grammar is the study of the structure of language, and the way that language conveys meaning. Without a serious study of grammar, we cannot assume that we are capable of conveying meaning through language. Language is complicated, ambiguous, frustrating, challenging. That is why it takes a lifetime of study. Language is a powerful tool, and as Masons, we insist that our brethren master the use of their tools. Words have meaning, whether we want them to or not. Syntax conveys meaning, whether we want it to or not. Human beings have the option of vomiting out strings of words (or things they wish were words) artlessly without any care as to how they are received and understood. But Masons do not have that option, not if they want to remain fellows of the Craft.

That leads to rhetoric, or the art of fashioning language to convey meaning, of moving the hearts and minds of those who receive our language, and ultimately, persuading them that we have something valid to convey. Men, and especially Masons, have strong opinions because we are intelligent men brought in close proximity with other intelligent men of very diverse backgrounds, faiths, political opinions, and educations. It is natural that, as much as we use the trowel to best agree, we sometimes will not agree. Rhetoric teaches us how to make our cases as Masons, and not as bullies nor as petulant children.

Rhetoric is neutral. It can be used for good, or it can be used for evil, as any propagandist knows. But Masons are committed to truth, and logic is the study of how to test our ideas for their truth value. Rhetorical logic (I would consider mathematical logic to be a different subject, better covered under arithmetic in the scheme of the seven liberal arts and sciences) is the study of how to fail to convey the truth verbally, by studying logical fallacies. Because a Mason values the truth above all else, when confronted with a fallacy, he divests his heart and conscience of it, as the dross he needs to leave behind in order to be a living stone fit for the Master's use.

A Mason who eschews these lessons is as contemptible as one who eschews our other virtues, make no mistake. A bus driver who does not know whether or not he cannot safely operate his bus but drives it anyway is a menace. A Mason who does not know whether or not his words have meaning cannot be responsible for his words, and words have launched wars, shaped nations, saved or damned souls, and have erected new sciences. A Mason who cannot sway the hearts and minds of others through his words will forever be thought a fool, and we should not be at the making of a Mason of a fool. A Mason who does not know whether or not his ideas are true, and declines to test them for their truth value, and yet persists in those ideas is a man who cannot value truth. This puts him in spiritual peril, and demonstrates that he eschews our other virtues—virtues more immediately obviously moral in nature.

To try a Fellowcraft is not to insult him but to honor him. You will not be the first, nor the last, to do so. If he is also a Master Mason, then his brethren have vouched for his proficiency. It makes liars of us all if he claims honors in the Craft that he has not yet earned.

I am adamant about this. A Mason who makes simple grammatical errors shows his contempt towards Freemasonry by doing so. A Mason who does not rise above cliché and uttered banalities he repeats from others shows his contempt towards Freemasonry by doing so. A mason who persists in ideas and sentiments that are logically false shows his contempt towards Freemasonry for doing so. We are all rough ashlars striving to perfect ourselves. But a Mason who does not strive to perfect himself stops being a Mason, and this includes every part of the Masonic curriculum, including the seven liberal arts and sciences. Not every Mason has studied atonal counterpoint or gravitational redshift, even though we strive to learn music and astronomy. But a Mason who defends his ignorance shows his contempt for Masonry by doing so.

We can try a Fellowcraft by his attitude towards what he does not yet know. The necessity of a virtuous education is stressed throughout our ritual. This education did not end when we left our respective schools; it continues as long as we remain conscious.

Some of us were educated men before we ever became Masons. Some of us never received a basic education and are called upon to learn now what we never learned before. Masons meet on the level; but not because we insist on a baseline mediocrity in our members. We meet on the level because we each strive to be worthy of our brothers, with zeal and humility. William Preston was an orphan who taught himself, and yet he became the framer of our Craft Degrees. Benjamin Franklin came from similarly humble circumstances. Freemasonry demands daily improvement, no matter what our starting points are, and the results of daily improvement are notable, whereas the results of inertia discredit our Craft.

Each of us is a walking advertisement for the Craft. A Masonic communication riddled with spelling and grammatical errors embarrasses the Fraternity as a whole, not merely because it reveals us as ignorant men; but because it reveals us as men who profess to value the very arts we demonstrate that we do not value.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Korach: Bloomed Blossoms, and Yielded Almonds

In this Torah portion, Korach conspires to rebel against Moses and Aaron, and his conspiracy fails, and he is destroyed along with his conspirators. Keen to show the tribes of Israel that the Tribe of Levi has religious authority over the other tribes, God tells Moses to ask the heads of the tribes to take their rods (מַּטֹּת, or matot) and engrave their names on them (or some say the names of their tribes). Interestingly, Matot will be the name of a future Torah portion in Numbers. Just as the English word staff has a double meaning of both a rod, and a group of employees, so in Hebrew, matot can also refer to a group of subordinates as well as a wooden staff.

God told Moses to gather the rods, along with Aaron's rod, and to place them inside the Tabernacle, before the Ark. Recall that in Exodus, Aaron demonstrated before the priests of Egypt that he could cast his rod on the ground, and have it turn into a serpent. This is the same rod. God tells Moses that the rod of the man whom God would choose would blossom inside the Tabernacle, and by this God would choose the proper leader of the tribes.

The next day, Moses went to get the rods from inside the tent. Aaron's rod had sprouted leaves, and now blossoms and almonds were ripening upon it. The leaders of the other tribes were terrified by this demonstration, and God told Moses to put Aaron's rod before the Ark as a testament that Aaron's authority came from Divine right.

The symbol of the almond appears elsewhere in the Bible, and in Freemasonry as well. In Ecclesiastes 12:5, the candidate is told that "Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets." The almond tree shall flourish because its blossoms are white, and so a metaphor for old age, as white hair growing on the head of an older person.

Of course, Aaron's rod is familiar to every Royal Arch Mason as well, for reasons improper to divulge.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Shlach: A Ribband of Blue

In this Torah portion, Moses sends out twelve scouts (one from each tribe) to explore the Promised Land and make their report back to the Children of Israel. They are gone from the camp for 40 days, and when they return, their report is divided. Ten scouts report that the land is filled with giants who would be unconquerable, but Joshua and Caleb report that, with God's help, they could easily be defeated. The people listen to the ten scouts and panic, and lament, and wish aloud that they had never left Egypt.

God offers to Moses to kill all the Children of Israel and give Moses a better people to lead, but Moses asks God to reconsider. If the Children of Israel die in the wilderness, then the other peoples will see it as God's failure, not the failure of the Israelites. So God reluctantly spares their lives. It is notable that previously Abraham had argued with God when God insisted on killing outright whole peoples, but Moses actually managed to spare whole peoples from God's wrath.

Towards the end of the Torah portion is an interesting mitzvah that is used as the third paragraph of the Sh'ma prayer, which Jews recite morning and night every day. God commands the Israelites to wear tassels on the corners of their garments, and to twist into the tassels a single thread of blue wool, dyed with the blue dye called תכלת, or tekhelet. This dye came from an animal called the חילזון, or khilazon. This animal was most likely a sea snail. The Talmud explains that the animal lived in the Mediterranean Sea, and was shaped somewhat like a fish with a shell, and that its blood was the dye. It only surfaced every seventy years, so this dye was very rare and expensive. After the Romans expelled the Jews from Palestine, the knowledge of how to make tekhelet was lost. The Talmud also warns that plant indigo is the same color, but that using plant dies instead of genuine tekhelet is not kosher. The Radziner Rebbe in the 19th century had a vision that the Messiah visited him and told him that he had to discover how to make tekhelet in order for the Messiah to come. He moved to Palestine and spent decades researching the dye, and finally devised a dye prepared from cuttlefish that looks indigo blue. Another rabbi at the time, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, analyzed the cuttlefish dye, and found that it was Prussian Blue, which can be synthesized by other sources, and therefore concluded that the cuttlefish was not the chilazon.

The famous murex snail of antiquity, which was the source of the Roman purple dye, was Rabbi Herzog's choice for techelet, even though the dye from the murex snail is purple instead of blue. This purple dye was incredibly expensive and rare, and was the only source of purple dye in antiquity, which is why only Roman emperors (and later kings) were allowed to wear it. Incidentally, the first synthetic purple dye was derived from coal-tar derivatives, and was called "mauve". The first garment dyed mauve was given as a gift to Queen Victoria, who wore it publicly as a testament to British industry.

In the 1980s, a scientist in Israel exposed murex dye to sunlight, and found that the sun broke down the chemicals in the dye and turned the purple dye indigo blue. It is currently thought that this is the true techelet. I own a prayer shawl with fringes, with one thread dyed using this dye. Ashkenazi Jews generally don't wear blue threads in their fringes, and Sephardic Jews often do, using this or the cuttlefish dye.

As a memento to the lost dye, Ashkenazi Jews wore prayer shawls with a blue stripe in them, and this blue stripe is also on the top and bottom of the flag of Israel. This blue is the reason why Craft Lodges in Freemasonry are called "Blue Lodges", and the royal murex dye is why Grand Lodge officers wear purple.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Behaalotecha: would God that all the Lord's people were prophets

In the Torah, the final verses from the tenth chapter of the Book of Numbers [Numbers 10: 35-36] are surrounded by backward versions of the letter nun: ׆
Numbers 10:35 is recited in a synagogue whenever the Torah scrolls are taken from the Ark. Nobody knows why the backward nuns appear. They also appear in Psalm 107. The Rabbis of the Talmud believed that the backward letters denoted that the text was in the wrong sequence in the Torah, and there are lots of debates as to where the text should actually go. This is one of the weird things about the Torah as it is written by scribes, as opposed to the text in a printed book.

In the next chapter, the people complain about having to eat nothing but manna. Moses hears the people weeping in their tents, and he asks God for help, saying, "I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me." [Numbers 11: 14].

God responds by commanding Moses to gather the seventy elders of the tribes, the seventy wisest men among the people, and having them convene around the Tent of Meeting. God descended, and allowed some of His essence to fill the tent, much like the Shekhinah dwelling in the Tent of Meeting. The holy essence of God permeated these men, and they were given the gift of prophecy. Two men remained in the camp but were also given the gift of prophecy. Their names were Eldad and Medad. The two men immediately began to prophesy, and this alarmed the people, who went to Moses, but found Joshua, son of Nun, instead, who pleaded with Moses to stop the men from prophesying. "And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" [Numbers 11: 29].

The Talmud suggests that there were six wise men from each of the Twelve Tribes, making 72 in all. But only 70 met at the Tent of Meeting. That leaves the two men, Eldad and Medad, who failed to arrive, but gained the gift of prophecy anyway.

The Kabbalists are fascinated with this passage, which they claim is imbued with hints about how normal people can gain the gift of prophecy, and that God wants people to be prophets. Indeed, this is the justification for seeking out esoteric knowledge in general; the justification being that it pleases God to have His children seek him out.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Naso: Sotah and Nazir

In this Torah portion, we deal with two very strange procedures. The first is sotah, a trial by ordeal for a woman accused by her husband of adultery, and the second is the nazir, or the closest thing that Judaism has to an ascetic tradition. Both of these practices are deprecated, and nobody does either of them today, but they are sufficiently weird that they deserve comment. Indeed, the Talmud devotes a tractate to each.

Sotah is a ritual to determine if a woman accused by her husband of adultery is innocent. If a husband suspects his wife of adultery, and there is not enough evidence to make a positive case (remember that adultery was a capital crime), he can bring his wife to a priest, or bring her before the entrance to the Tabernacle, or before one of the gates of the Temple, and offer a grain offering as a sacrifice. Water would be taken from the sacred washstand, put in a clay vessel and mixed with earth from the Tabernacle floor, and used to make a "bitter" potion. The woman's hair was uncovered (and Josephus reports that she was stripped to the waist), and she was made to offer an oath:
"And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh [genitals] to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen." [Numbers 5: 19-22].
The priest then writes down the oath on parchment, and then washes away the ink with the bitter water. The woman then is made to drink the bitter water, and he offers the grain sacrifice. The Torah predicts that if the woman is guilty, then her belly will distend and her genitals will swell up and rupture, which is fairly ghastly. However, if she is innocent, she will not be harmed, and instead will become pregnant.

This is highly peculiar. Trial by ordeal appears nowhere else in the Bible. Even if the woman is innocent, she would be profoundly humiliated by this ordeal. Why is this in the Bible?

Maybe because, unlike most ordeals, the woman is usually proven innocent by her trial. Most women who drink dirty water don't have their genitals explode. Her husband, by subjecting her to such an embarrassment, looks like an idiot for putting her through this. How was adultery often handled in the Ancient World (and sometimes even today)? Through a revenge killing. Instead of a revenge killing, Jewish law demands that the woman undergo the sotah instead. An intermediary, in the form of the priest, handles the situation rather than her husband. He runs the sotah, and keeps her from undergoing anything more harmful than drinking bitter water and exposing her hair (or chest if Josephus is correct). Considering that the other option is revenge killing, this seems like a saner alternative.

The nazir, or nazirite, is a person who undertakes a vow to

  • Abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, intoxicating liquors and vinegar distilled from such, and refrain from eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes.
  • Refrain from cutting the hair on one's head; but to allow the locks of the head's hair to grow.
  • Not to become impure by corpses or graves, even those of family members.
Why? Nobody really knows. In the vow, the nazirite would decide for how long to be a nazirite. After the period is over, the person takes a ritual bath, makes a series of sacrifices, and then shave their head and place their hair in the fire with their burnt offering. The nazirite is considered holy unto God (the same phrase as on the headband of the High Priest), and yet must offer a sin offering upon the termination of their nazir period.

Today, the Temple does not exist, and therefore all modern nazirites implicitly take a permanent vow. In the Book of Judges, Sampson's mother makes a vow that her baby will be a nazirite, and Samson is a nazirite for life, but the description of his arrangement differs from that in the Torah. Therefore, the Talmud describes the nazir-like-Samson as another alternative, where he does not need to avoid a dead body. That Samson drinks wine with Delilah and cuts his hair shows his moral shortcomings as an oath-breaker.

The Talmud is divided on whether the vow of a nazirite is good or evil. Maimonides believed that it was immoderate to be a nazirite, while Nachmanides regarded the vow as very holy, and felt that a nazirite should ideally make a whole-life vow. Jews in general eschew asceticism. The Jewish religion, in its Rabbinic form, is a householder religion, and holding a job and supporting a family are important portions of the Jewish spiritual path. Similarly, Freemasonry seems to be a householder path. The Mason is active in the community, in business, and with his family, while still adhering to his Masonic obligations.

Contemporary Rastafarians take a similar vow to the vow of the nazirite. The prophet Samuel was also a nazirite, again because his mother Hannah made the vow before his birth because she was barren.

Oh, and by the way, this Torah portion also contains the Priestly Blessing (or Priestly Benediction). I blogged about this previously. The Masons have the Masonic Benediction:
May the Blessings of Heaven rest upon us and all regular Masons. May Brotherly Love prevail, and every moral and social virtue cement us. Amen.
I've traced the Masonic Benediction back at least as far as Preston's Illustrations of Masonry, but I would suspect it is much older still.